Local Man To Paddle From Cuba To Key West

Thursday, July 25, 2013 - by Katie Elzer-Peters
Ben Friberg is attempting to Standup Paddleboard from Cuba to Key West.
Ben Friberg is attempting to Standup Paddleboard from Cuba to Key West.

Sometime this weekend Ben Friberg, from Chattanoga, and creator of the Chattajack 31 Standup Paddleboard and Kayak Race, will paddle from Cuba to Key West. It’s 90 miles as the crow flies, but paddleboards don’t have wings. 

This is a channel crossing that others have made or attempted before him, including some swimmers and a traditional (prone) paddleboarder, but only one (Cynthia Aguilar, in 2011) has successfully made the crossing on a Standup Paddleboard. (Which seems like and advantageous way to go to me, given that at least on a standup, you should, hopefully, not be in the water with the jellyfish, which seem to put an end to many crossings of that channel.)

I caught up with Ben before he and his team left Chattanooga. He sounded prepared, but nervous about the weather. “There are still so many variables with the weather. I will be more comfortable when I get there and people who understand what the the weather challenges and conditions are there. Right now, there is a system coming off the coast of Africa that the NHC says has a 40 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm. Moving 15 miles per hour.” (As of press time, this storm has been named Tropical Storm Dorian, and is projected to hit the area near Cuba sometime around Tuesday.) He said “There so many things at play here. We could really experience a ‘calm before the storm’, or there could be a brutal headwind coming toward Cuba. I’ll feel better when I’m there, standing, looking out at the water, ready to paddle.”


Ben will be taking a team that includes his boat captain, cook, navigator, medic, and some additional helpers. Five people are driving from Chattanooga, three are flying, and the rest are down in Key West already. It has taken months and months of wading through red tape and regulations in order to receive the permits to go to Cuba. “I didn’t want to do a lot of publicity before we secured the final permit, in case the trip was a no-go.” In addition to his team (details below), he’s getting help from sponsor Kokatat, a U.S. manufacturer of outdoor water gear located in Arcata, California. 

The team will take two days to sail from Key West to Cuba. Once on Cuba, they will most likely leave to paddle back to Key West as soon as possible. “Captain Bob doesn’t like to stay on Cuba for too long because he says that the weather can change quickly for the worse and you’ll end up having done all of this preparation for nothing.” The crew is looking forward to any time they are able to spend in Cuba in order to soak up the culture that few Americans get to see.


Ben said “Everybody going along on the trip is so inspiring. It is fantastic to have this group of people that are really great at what they do. All of them are very down to earth and humble people. Very team-oriented. They’re all amazing in their own element. That serves as a great inspiration to me.” 

Here’s who’s going to Cuba:

“Captain Bob Olin (Key West, FL) Capt Bob has assisted individuals looking to cross from Cuba to Key West six or more times. He has assisted numerous world-class swimmers (Penny Palfrey, Dian Nyad, Chloe McCardel) and both Cynthia Aguilar’s prone expeditions.

Ben Friberg (Chattanooga 20 years paddling whitewater, four years SUP, Chattanooga Native

Russell Friberg (Chattanooga) Ben’s dad. Russell is one of the happiest go lucky so and so’s in this life. He’s always cracking jokes and trying to get a laugh out of ya. He’s not an endurance athlete but he knows how to laugh and stay positive all day long. 

Kathy Zerkle (Fayetteville, W.V.) Kathy is our team medic. She has assisted many unique adventures and is in high demand by teams needing a medic.

Kimberley Sutton (Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach, N.C.) Kimberley was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago till age 14, then moved to Manhattan, upon graduating high school she moved to Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach, N.C. She is experienced in endurance endeavors having completed an Ironman, paddled the entire coast of North Carolina (2013), and is no stranger to podium finishes in a multitude of SUP races.

David Hughes (Fayetteville, W.V.) David Hughes is a whitewater veteran of 25 years and has chased adventures for the majority of his life. He founded the New River Academy, a high school for kids fortunate enough to travel the world kayaking while completing an accredited high school curriculum. David was Ben’s counselor at the YMCA Camp Ocoee in the early 1990’s.

Hunt Jennings (Chattanooga Hunt is the youngest member in our group. Hunt was a student at McCallie High School until his Junior and Senior year, both of which he spent traveling, studying, and kayaking throughout the U.S. and internationally with David Hughes’ high school New River Academy. Hunt is now a top athlete amongst kayaking’s elite and as humble as they come.

Sam Silvey and Hugh Huffaker Sam’s and Hugh are both Chattanooga natives. Their element is rock, they climb. Together the two run Silvey+Huffaker Creative. Sam and Hugh will document the adventure as it unfolds.

The team also consists of a navigator and cook, both aboard the support boat. The team has two weather exerts stationed in Florida who will be communicating with the team via satellite phone.”


“How long will this take you? Will you get off your board?” I asked. “I hope I can do it in less than 24 hours. I’m mentally preparing myself for 40 hours,” he said.

Let that sink in. 

Paddling for 40 hours straight.

Why not get off your board and rest? 

He answered “Nobody has set a set of rules for channel crossings on paddleboards. Swimmers, however, have a very strict set of rules for channel crossings that are based on the English channel crossing. They go shore to shore, no wetsuit, no getting on the boat and resting. You can stop and eat and tread water. You can’t climb on the boat and take a breather. I think we should try to stick to those rules. You can fall off, climb back on board, can sit on the board for a feeding break, but c’mon, it’s standup paddleboarding. Let’s stand up.” He continued, “If a great white shark shows up, you might have to get on the boat. You can take a look at where you are on the GPS, and when you get back out on the board, start at the GPS coordinates.”

Someday, if travel restrictions to Cuba are lifted, and people who live in Key West can get on a boat, paddle over, and complete the crossing when the Gulf Stream, swell, and wind are all perfectly lined up, he thinks the crossing will be completed in 17 or fewer hours. “I don’t think I will get those conditions,” he said. 


“What will you eat to paddle for 40 hours?” (I always want to know what everyone’s eating.) “I have three phases of food strategy,” he said. “I start with solid foods like sandwiches and fruit and stuff. Before my stomach starts to get weird. I kind of decide in the moment. I might have some Cliff bars. They’re not my favorite by they work ok for me. I eat a lot of carbs and protein in the beginning.” 

“Once my stomach starts to tell me that it is getting fatigued, I will switch to endurance foods like blocks and gels.”

“After about 12 hours, my stomach has about had it. At that point I eat soft carbs that I can get down. During the 24 hour Yukon paddle last year, what kept me going after hour 12 were kid’s vanilla pudding snacks and blueberries. They’re easy to digest and gave me instant energy. 

I think it’s important to have a variety of foods. People on the boat can ask what you want to eat.”

In terms of hydration, he drinks mostly water and takes Hammer electrolyte pills, or might add a supplement to his water pack. “I like the Nuun grape flavor,” he said. 


Ben said his main fitness goal is “To be able to get up off the couch and do whatever I want.” Most people don’t want to get off the couch and paddle from Cuba, but I see where he’s going with that. 

He said “I don’t do a strict training program. I like to cross train and do lots of different activities. I do have a personal trainer so that I can do whatever I want. I might not make the podium, but I want to just have fun out there doing it.”

Mental preparation has a lot to do with getting ready for such a huge endeavor. He said “I think that my biggest strength going into this is, and it comes from having kayaked for 20 years, is the ability to suffer. When you kayak in Tennessee, the best season is in the middle of the winter when it is super cold and really miserable. If you’re doing a 10 or 15 mile paddle and its 30 degrees, and you crash and you get wet and really cold, and borderline hypothermic, inside a gorge with cliff walls, you can’t just quit. You have no choice but to go to the finish line where you car is. You’re managing what your problem is. Core temp is dropping, vision is slowed down, can’t feel fingers. You can always say “this sucks, but I’ve had worse.” 

From a recent trip to Hawaii, he learned a lot about how to use swell, depending upon its direction—using it to the advantage and lessening the impact of it being the detriment. He also prepared by very carefully selecting the people that will go with him. “I’ve made sure that they’re positive and inspiring. None of these people are selfish people. They have all solved crisis situations and know how to adapt to a tough situation.”


“I’m really excited to experience the culture of Cuba and see Havana. I’m also really excited to be immersing myself in the dynamics of a really cool group of people going with us. I look forward to being out in the frontier of the open ocean and everything that comes with that. Also, for me, while doing long paddles, I look forward to hours eight and nine when you’re still feeling really good, have come a long way, and you can sort of see the how things are going to fall the rest of the way. When you’re in a good steady paddle and place. A zen place. Moving forward. I like to grab some headphones and put them on and go into a happy place. Can only get to after you’ve been paddling that long and you know how much you have to do. Assuming that the conditions aren’t completely miserable.” 

Best wishes for fair skies and calm seas, Ben. We’ll talk to you on the other side!

Follow them as they progress here: http://cubasup.com/

- See more at: http://distressedmullet.com/paddling-cuba-key-west#sthash.jzm8F74K.dpuf

Tellico Hatchery Announces Winter Hours

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency announced winter hours for the Tellico Hatchery in Tellico Plains. Holidays along with hours of daylight and alterations in operations are the primary reasons for changes. Fish eat less during colder months. This reason, along with a reduction of seasonal responsibilities such as mowing grass and hatchery upkeep, means fewer people on staff. ... (click for more)

Wildlife Officer Pete Geesling Honored In Veterans Day Observance Ceremony

Brandon “Pete” Geesling, a wildlife officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Warren County, was one of five veteran state employees recognized during a Veterans Day observance event held at the Tennessee Tower Plaza.     Previously, Mr. Geesling served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a combat engineer which included a deployment ... (click for more)

Fire Breaks Out At McKee Bakery Plant 2; Damages Listed At $15,000; Propane Tanks Were Near Blaze

Fire broke out at a McKee Food plant at Collegedale on Saturday night. At 6:45 p.m. , an employee at McKee Foods called 911 call reporting a fire at McKee Foods Plant 2 located at 10260 McKee Dr. Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department responded and arrived on the scene reporting flames 15 feet high at one end of the building of Plant 2. According to fire officials, ... (click for more)

Woman Shot Saturday Night Near O'Rear Street

A woman was shot while driving on Saturday night. Just after  9 p.m.  the Chattanooga Police Department responded to reports of a person shot. Once on scene, police located a female victim near the 2500 block of O'Rear Street suffering from a life-threatening gunshot wound to the face. The victim was driving a vehicle when the vehicle was struck by gunfire. She  ... (click for more)

Lung Cancer, The Deadliest Cancer In The United States

This time of year, I remember to give thanks for my faith, my family and friends and my health. Recently, I learned that lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in the United States; in fact, more Americans die each year from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. One in 13 men and one in 16 women will develop the disease in their lifetime. It’s important to learn about ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Trouble With Chicago

On “Black Friday” night, I saw television footage of what was said to be about 2,000 people marching in protest in Chicago. The very vocal mob descended on the toniest street – Michigan Avenue – to spew its rage over a police officer who shot and killed a 17-year-old, this over a year ago in October of 2014. The just-released tapes of the incident embroiled the blacks who insist ... (click for more)